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By the time the leaders gather, all that's left to do will be to smile.
LONDON — When the leaders of the G20 meet in London Thursday for breakfast, lunch, photos and a few hours of talk there will be few surprises. There's a reason for that. Safety first is the cardinal rule whenever heads of government agree to meet in public. How this summit came together is instructive.
So let's start at the very beginning. In November when the first wave of panic over global financial institutions was at its height, the leaders of the G20, the world's 19 largest economies plus a representative of the European Union, held a long-scheduled meeting in Washington D.C. A decision was made there and then to reconvene at some date in the near future. As Britain was due to hold the rotating presidency of the organization London seemed the best possible venue.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown set his civil servants the task of making it happen. But before the embossed invitations went out there was a lot of work to do. What should be on the agenda? How detailed should it be? A consensus needed to be reached.
Civil servants — the sherpas — went to work, burning up email networks and phone lines to find out how far the various governments were willing to go in pursuit of some kind of unity. As the panic receded this became more difficult.
The U.S. and the U.K. wanted the summit to commit the G20 to a coordinated stimulus package. The leaders of the big two European economies, Germany and France, decided the rush to stimulate economies by bailing out banks and loosening controls over money was not a good idea. They began to focus on increased regulation of the financial industry as the thing they wanted most to achieve. Then the leaders of the emerging — actually fully emerged — economies of China, India and Brazil decided they wanted to focus on reforming the main international financial institutions like the IMF so that they had more say in how those bodies were run.
An agenda of more or less these five items came together in late January:
1. Coordinated stimulus as a way of applying defibrillator pads to the collapsing global economy.
2. New transnational banking regulations including closer scrutiny of offshore tax havens.
3. A general statement against protectionism.
4. Reform of institutions like the IMF, reflecting the new reality of the global economy (in other words getting China a seat at the top table).
5. A package of measures for developing, i.e. poor, nations.
The last item came up only recently. At the November meeting the conventional wisdom at the G20 was that the poorest nations would weather the storm better because they had no financial sectors to go bust. But the collapse of global trade has left poor countries, particularly those in Africa reliant on exporting raw materials, without markets.
Once the development question was officially on the agenda the question was raised: Shouldn't potential recipients take part in the talks? The answer was yes, so now Africa will be represented by Ethiopia. Thailand has been invited to represent ASEAN. There will be other official attendees from international bodies making this more the G29 than the G20.
By mid-February the British government thought it was time to fix a date. Best time for the main man, President Barack Obama, was during a trip to Europe for a long-scheduled meeting to celebrate the 60th anniversary of NATO on April 3-4. It's a short flight from London to Strasbourg, France, where the celebration will take place.